Paris is back in lockdown, a.k.a. “reconfinement”. Despite a summer spent outdoors at dynamic beaches (“plages dynamiques”) and at pop-up terraces (“terrasses éphémères”), the second wave (“deuxième vauge”) has arrived with a vengeance.
As was the case during the first confinement, you need to fill out an attestation (sworn declaration) to go outside and you are only allowed to do so for certain purposes. Thankfully, amongst them is a brief, one hour outing to do your daily exercise within a 1 kilometer radius (“rayon”) of your home.
This has led to surreal conversations such as “Ça donne quoi ton 1km ?” as people compare their 1km radii. Fortunately, thanks to the number of parks and squares in Paris, most people tend to have at least some green space (“espace verte”) within their permitted kilometer. Others, though, are not so lucky, with parks just out of reach.
The reconfinement has also brought about the return of generalized working from home (“télétravail”) for anyone who can do their job à distance. And with social circles getting smaller and smaller, this has meant that many of the French – myself included – are missing the incidental moments of convivialité that come with office life.
One of the things I miss most is the way that French people say “bonjour” to absolutely everyone they cross paths with from the moment they set foot inside the office. It starts with a cheerful greeting (and sometimes an exchange of “ça va’s”) at the beginning of the day. Then it transforms into a “rebonjour” (literally “re-hello”) if you cross paths again, or even – for the seasoned experts – just a “re” in response to a gratuitous “bonjour” (if you’ve already greeted the person). And then, if you’re me, by the end of the day it transforms into a whispered “bonjour”, or some variant thereof, just to fill the silence when you pass by someone in the corridor. (I also say “pardon” a lot, most of the time unnecessarily and sometimes to walls, tables, printers and other intimate objects I bang into as I bluster about my day).
When I first arrived in France (and especially when I first arrived in my current job at a French company) I didn’t get it. I had the Anglo-Saxon habit of rushing straight to my office, head down, rather than doing the “tour des bureaux” to say bonjour (ok, I actually still do this, particularly when running late, coat stuffed in bag, Bridget Jones style) and even – cringe – eating my lunch at my desk.
Within a few months of my arrival at my current job, a kind-hearted colleague took pity on me and staged a gentle intervention, telling me that I was at risk of being considered asociale if I carried on in my Anglo-Saxon ways. This came as a shock. As anyone who knows me can attest, in my old jobs I was more at risk of being elected Miss Congeniality than being deemed antisocial. (With the exception, perhaps, of some of my early jobs in the customer service/hospitality industry when I was the cliché of an angsty teenager (with garage band to boot) and, later, surly college student nursing a hangover.)
But as time wore on, I got used to the systematic salutations and casual chit chat. And I’ve come to realize that they’re actually an important part of the work culture here. In fact, according to one prominent business phycologist I heard interviewed recently, the daily banter around machine à café is work. (Getting paid to drink coffee you say? This is a philosophy that I can get behind).
Over time, I even embraced doing the bise at the office. This took me a while. I had to fight all of my standoff-ish-this-is-my-dance-space-do-I-have-toothpaste-on-my-mouth instincts. There were awkward moments straight out of any number of the many fish-out-of-water-in-France memoirs on my bookshelf or television shows that shall not be named. Moments when I would go for the bise and my interlocuteur would go for a handshake (or vice versa) and we would end up in an infinitely more intimate mixture of the two. Moments when I would go to kiss my interlocuteur’s right cheek (as is the habit in Paris) only to find that my colleagues from Lyon start with the opposite cheek (resulting in the exact same locking of lips described by Oliver Gee in his must-read memoir Paris on Air).
I leaned so far into these habits that a few years ago when I went on “tour” with my band to London (yes I’m making it sound like much more than it was, but frankly the “remember when we travelled/danced/played live music…” moments are all I have right now) and visited my old offices – a glass skyscraper in the heart of the City – I was shocked that you could get into an elevator with someone and stand in complete silence, or pass by someone in the corridor without saying a word.
The lockdowns (I should say I’ve only had two months out of lockdown since mid-March, having lived through the majority of the notorious Melbourne lockdown, too) have made me realize how much I miss the office. I miss the camaraderie amongst my colleagues. I miss the idle chat around the coffee machine and in the lunch room.
And I don’t think I’m the only one. I’ve realized this lately as I’ve been having longer than usual conversations with the petits commerçants in my area (or at least those who can remain open; more on that in another post). The shopkeepers, too, are missing their customers and the conversations that comes with them.
This became obvious to me the other day when I paid a visit to the wonderful G. Detou – a store that sells literally everything you could ever need for baking and cooking. (Fun fact: I recently realized, thanks to David Lebovitz, that the shop is not named after its proprietor – a Mr. or Mrs. Detou, I had assumed – but is in fact a clever play on words for “J’ai de tout” (“I have everything”).
I struck up a conversation with the owner when I was there and we ended up chatting for a lot longer than I had intended. I realized that she, too, was probably starved for the conversations that usually come with running a bustling business.
And I recognised in her a sort of desperation for social interaction that I myself had suffered from during my first lockdown in Melbourne. My husband was working nights (long story) and I found myself alone with the baby (and my trusty pals from France Inter) during the day for hours on end. My in-person social interactions were limited to the people I encountered on my daily walks or shopping trips. I would bail up neighbours and chat to them about faulty power poles or downed trees. I would chat to shop assistants about the lockdown, the weather; anything, really. Some days it would get to the mid-afternoon when I would realize that, baby aside, I hadn’t spoken to anyone.
Despite the pretty, city-in-still-life pictures, life in Paris is pretty grim right now. The bars, terrasses, bookshops, theatres and museums that feed the city’s social and intellectual life are closed. The mandatory mask-wearing makes it hard to smile at anyone (unless you are particularly adept at smizing). But, on the upside, the reconfinement has got Parisians back out exercising – some in improbable outfits, despite a recent uptick in active wear sales – in droves.
So, long story short, a few days ago I decided to make our morning run at Tuileries my office corridor. Much to my husband’s embarrassment, I started saying “bonjour” to people as we went by. Perhaps surprisingly (at least according to my Instagram polling) a majority of people do say “bonjour” back. Sure, I get a few strange looks; some people might not hear me, some might be afraid I have COVID and some might be afraid of the potentially-crazy over-friendly lady running towards them.
But between the buzz of my morning coffee and the endorphins that come from running in the fresher-than-usual air, the “Bonjour Project”, as I’ve come to call it (mainly because it sounds better than the “Creeping on Random Parisians Project”) makes me smile. And a few people have told me that they’re going to try it out, too. I hope they do. Because you never know, you might just make someone’s morning. And maybe you’ll be the first (though hopefully not only) person they’ll speak to that day.
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